The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and world famous cathedrals in Goa have once again locked horns over bikini-clad tourists visiting churches.
The administrators of Goan cathedrals, which are under the purview of ASI, are opposed to worshippers coming to church in bikinis -- a common sight in the country’s most popular seaside destinations. On the other hand, the ASI, in efforts to safeguard the interests of foreign tourists, has maintained that it cannot ban the bikini. Caught in the middle of the controversy is Goa’s BJP Govt.
Last year, 4.5 million foreign tourists visited Goa and the foreign exchange earnings in the last three years were $43-57 million.
The debate in the state is whether the cathedrals are primarily centres of worship or tourist destinations.
The religion versus heritage conflict is mandating a balancing act by the state government between religious sentiments and foreign money.
The friction came to the fore after the authorities of the Basilica of Bom Jesus banned the entry of tourists wearing ‘beachwear’.
Visitors coming to see the church are now screened and bikini-clad tourists, who are keen on entering the 16th century baroque-style monument, are asked to cover themselves with a shawl, provided by the church. The rules of exposure apply to both men and women.
“We are not stopping anyone from visiting the church. We are only saying that they will have to dress appropriately. One should not forget that they are on holy premises,” said Fr Savio Barreto, rector of the famous Basilica, which houses the relics of St Francis Xavier -- patron saint of Goa who died in 1552.
According to the rector, church authorities were forced to take a stand following numerous complaints from believers about bikini-clad merrymakers ruining the sanctity and decorum of the religious place.
“It is our duty to maintain the sanctity of this place of worship,” he said, insisting that no tourist had so far protested against the stricture that came into effect this month. But the ASI is worried that the church ruling could hurt Goa’s image as a tourist destination.
“We are not denying the fact that the Basilica is a place of worship. But the church authorities should not forget the fact that it is being protected by ASI and is also one of the major tourist attractions of Goa,” an official said.
He added that the ASI had sought political intervention to solve the matter, as the issue was “quite sensitive”. The issue has also put the ruling BJP Government in a fix. “We are aware of the controversy. But it is a sensitive issue and has to be dealt with extra care, especially because the state is ruled by a BJP Government,” said an official with the State Tourism Department.
Goa now has a inflow of 2.6 million tourists every year. The government plans to increase it to 6 million in the next five years by projecting it as a destination that has more than just “beaches and pubs”. Last year, the revenue from foreign tourists was around `6,000 crore.
This is not the first time that the ASI and the church authorities have locked horns on the same issue. Two years ago, the church authorities had threatened to ban the entry of bikini-clad tourists altogether.
The matter was sorted out after the ASI and church bodies reached an agreement allowing churches to put up signboards on dress code. However, the move had failed, as tourists continued to come to cathedrals in beachwear.
In fact, bikinis have been a problem not just for religious institutions in Goa, but also for governments. Successive Goa Govts have moved to ban bikinis from beaches following law and order issues and pressure from local people, only to backtrack.